Children and Poverty: the Role of Preschool

April 3, 2014

This guest post was written by NIEER Senior Research Fellow Cynthia Lamy. Dr. Lamy is a developmental and educational psychologist whose research and writing focuses primarily on children at risk of school failure, due to the many influences of poverty. She is currently working for the Robin Hood Foundation.

High quality preschool generates measurable, long-term impacts on children.  Many of us have known this for a long time, and have heard it or have said it ourselves many times. This is vital, valuable information for policymakers and for families. And for early childhood professionals, on days when boisterous 3-year olds are testing their teacher’s patience, and stressed parents are showing up late for pick-up, and policy advocates are explaining the graph to Congress one more time, it means that our career choice to focus on young children and their families, and our daily struggle to produce our best work, is truly worth every effort. kids in line

But in recent opportunities to speak about children and poverty to groups of people who could be loosely defined as potential child advocates–not researchers or policymakers, but knowledgeable or interested professional laypeople–when I asked how many people in the audience knew of preschool’s long-term effects or had heard of the longitudinal studies of preschool effects on children’s later adult outcomes, I was shocked to find the number of raised hands in the single digits.

Perry, Abecedarian, Chicago–they had never heard of any of them. An audience of educated, interested people was once again astonished to learn about the long-term impacts, as I told them about the longitudinal studies, including New Jersey’s Abbott district findings.

Once again I found myself describing, in lay terms, the wonder of it all. It may seem astonishing, I say, but high quality preschool is a powerful weapon against poverty. Rigorous research has found that children lucky enough to attend a wonderful preschool program–with warm and knowledgeable teachers who are specially certified to teach young children as they play or are busy with activities, incorporating new vocabulary into dramatic play, heading off behavior problems with a timely tete-a-tete about sharing, scaffolding math skills during snack time–these children go on to be retained in grade or placed in Special Education at nearly half the rate of their less fortunate peers; to graduate high school at much higher rates; to engage in less crime; and to earn more money as adults, becoming contributors to society and depending less on the national safety net.

Having made the conceptual journey from early childhood education to adult outcomes, the remarkable idea that high quality preschool is actually poverty-fighting is a short leap.

The benefits of high quality preschool exceed the costs of the programs, which is great for the children, their families, taxpayers, and for everyone, but this means much more than benefits to individuals, or even to school districts, or criminal justice systems.  This positive social return on investment also signals to us the possibility of an effective and efficient fight against poverty on a societal scale.

How different would American poverty be if every child had equal access to high quality educational experiences from as early as possible in their development, before the impact of poverty diminishes their potential? What if every child received warm, playful, informed, individualized early education no matter who their parents are or where they live? Excellent preschool, carefully implemented to maintain high quality, on a scale wide enough to provide access to everyone in need, is an essential policy lever to protect the developmental potential of vulnerable children. That broad protection will lessen the chronic, inter-generational nature of American poverty. It sounds like a grand statement, but it’s just the natural consequence of strong early support for human development.

There are a few mechanisms by which preschool can powerfully contribute to the fight against poverty, as reported by Barnett and others, Heckman and others, and here. One mechanism is the effect, direct or indirectly through the family, on children’s educational success.  It is obvious that children must succeed in school to grow up and out of poverty. The direct path of the effect of preschool is through a positive impact on some combination of children’s cognition, skills, and expectations for themselves. The indirect path is through improved parenting and increased parental awareness, engagement in, and support of their children’s educational experiences and school success, due to the preschool. These are the goals of every good early childhood program.

Another mechanism is an impact on increased parental earnings. With their children happy and safe in good early childhood programs, parents work more hours.

Then there is the potential for improving the quality of public educational systems, especially in high-poverty school districts, as best practices in preschool ‘trickle up’ to elementary schools.  This is not easy to accomplish, but pre-K-3rd grade models are an example of this effort, as are transition programs that bring preschool and early elementary staff members together to share their best practices. Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), with their cross-auspice implementation and focus on information sharing, program standards, and quality supports, may also help spread the best of early childhood widely, including to early elementary schools, alerting parents to the importance of high quality programs all along the continuum of their children’s development.

Taking the concept out one more contextual level: when schools improve, neighborhoods can begin to turn around in a virtuous cycle, further attracting education-oriented families. Without school improvement, there is little chance of that.

But there is another way that excellent early childhood programs can contribute to the fight against poverty, adding a timely and direct push against poverty just when many families are motivated to make a change–when their kids are very young. It is a tradition within the early childhood field that goes back all the way to the original objective of Head Start, to support the whole child and to respect the family. It arises from the capacity of early childhood professionals to perceive and understand the influence of problems in the family system on children’s development, and to be sensitive and supportive family partners. Early childhood programs are perfectly positioned to more effectively link families to the supportive opportunities they need, tailored specifically for them and their set of challenges.

Poverty is a complicated tangle of problems. Not all, but many, families in poverty need serious help. Parents need jobs that pay a living wage, or the adult education and training to move toward better employment. Families need stable, affordable, healthy homes. Often, families fighting poverty need a good pro bono lawyer. Everyone needs timely, affordable access to doctors and dentists. Families may be eligible for programs such as SNAP or WIC, but may be unaware. Family members with addictions or mental health issues; people living in fear of violence; older youth who need a safe, supportive haven after school; family members struggling with incarceration or reintegration into society–all need access to the assistance that would help them solve their problems, and help their young children grow to be healthier, happier, and more successful in school. Early childhood programs are in a unique position to tune in to families’ needs and to partner with families as they strive to do better for their children on a daily basis.

This is not a call to expand services. Asking early childhood program staff to extend their job description to the direct support of families at risk is asking too much, stretching resources thin, and creating distraction from the main educational mission. We have learned this lesson. Moreover, the support of families in need often requires specific knowledge and deep, often clinical, expertise, not typically housed in early childhood programs. Early childhood professionals should do for children and families what they do best. This is not a call for early childhood programs to take on even more responsibility, in addition to all that they already do.

But, this is a call for early childhood professionals to more explicitly recognize, understand, and value their natural position in the fight against poverty. It is a call to develop stronger working relationships between early childhood programs and other helping organizations. It is a call for early childhood professionals to be even smarter about the risks the families of their young students face, knowing where to send them for the support they need. And when there is little or no local capacity for the needed services, this is a call for early childhood professionals to be a voice for the expansion of those services–high quality services only, of course. If there is one thing we appreciate in the field of early childhood, it is the value of best practices.

It turns out that other programs, when they are of high quality, also produce measurable and cost-effective improvements for families, doing their part to push back against poverty. And across many poverty-related fields there is a growing recognition of the value of strong collaboration to create a true safety net–or, really, an opportunity net–for vulnerable families.  Early childhood programs, in fact all schools, should be part of that, taking a stronger stance in support of the families they serve.   No one program can solve all the complex problems of poverty. But, on a policy level, early childhood programs could take up what is actually a very natural, and potentially a particularly cost-effective, role, becoming powerful and persuasive proponents of young families in need, catalyzing and encouraging the development of best practice supports for families in their communities, and solving many more problems that are detrimental to children’s development, while children are still young.

We know that high quality preschool is a critical component in a set of policies and programs that have measurable impacts and that protect the development of children from the destructive effects of poverty. Preschool could be even more than that. It could fight poverty in real time.

 

References

Barnett, W. S., Young, J., & Schweinhart, L. (1998).  How preschool education influences long-term cognitive development and school success.  In W. S. Barnett & S. S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Barnett, W.S., Jung, K., Youn, M. & Frede, E.C. (2013).  The Abbott preschool program longitudinal effects study: 5th grade follow-up.  New Brunswick, NJ: NIEER.

Bayer, P., Ferreira, F. & McMillan, R. (2007).  A unified framework for measuring preferences for schools and neighborhoods.  The Journal of Political Economy, 115(4), 588-638.,

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2008).Meta-Analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3). Retrieved March 31, 2014, from  http://spot.colorado.edu/~camillig/Papers/38_15440.pdf

Cellini, S., Ferreira, F. & Rothstein, J. (2008).  The value of school facilities: Evidence from the dynamic regression-discontinuity design.  Working paper # 14516.  Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Forry, N. & Hofferth, S. (2011).  Maintaining work: The influence of child care subsidies on child care-related work disruptions.  Journal of Family Issues, 32(3), 346-368.

Heckman, J., Malofeeva, E., Pinto, R. & Savelyev, P. (2010).  Understanding the mechanisms through which an influential early childhood program boosted adult outcomes.  Presentation at the Measuring Education Outcomes: Moving from Enrollment to Learning Conference at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, June 2, 2010, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Lamy, C. E. (2012).  Poverty is a Knot and Preschool is an Untangler. In R. C. Pianta, W. S. Barnett, L. M Justice and S. M. Sheridan (Eds.) Handbook of Early Childhood Education.  NY: Guilford Press.

Matthews, M. (2006).  Child care assistance helps families work: A review of the effect of subsidy receipt on employment.  Washington, DC: CLASP.


The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

- Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Don’t STEM the Tide of Curiosity

December 13, 2013

The future economic viability of our country relies on a STEM-literate citizenry and workforce, but we aren’t educating our children to be science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) literate.  Research evidence is mounting for the importance of math and science school readiness for long-term achievement in these areas and in reading; yet, we leave behind so many children from low-resource communities.  Children who are as curious, able, and eager to learn as their middle class peers arrive at school behind in math and science knowledge and skills.  These gaps are likely to widen during the school years.

Child in lab goggles

The author’s son embraces his inner scientist, with proper safety precautions.
Used with permission of Kimberly Brenneman.

We have to change the equation here.  It’s not just an economic imperative; it’s a moral one.  Our challenge is to provide children with the kinds of home and preschool experiences that are good bets to improve school readiness in math and science.  Last week I returned from my fourth professional meeting in as many weeks.  Despite logging thousands of miles on United and Amtrak; spending nearly as many nights at the Marriott as in my own bed; and nearly being buried under the resulting blizzard of receipts and reimbursement forms, I am more enthusiastic and energetic about the field than I’ve been in years…maybe ever. At every one of those meetings I met, spoke to, learned from, and collaborated with people who share my passion for early childhood science, technology, engineering, and math education and are prepared to accept the challenge of improving early STEM readiness.

It is particularly satisfying to see the variety of groups interested in this issue. The Heising-Simons Foundation convened a group of researchers and funders to discuss ways to improve family engagement in children’s early math learning.  At the National Governor’s Association meeting, policymakers and researchers brainstormed ways to bring early math to the forefront of education policy.  Colleagues and I gave presentations to hundreds of educators at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, each of whom wanted to improve their professional skills so that they could better support young children as science learners. At the National Science Foundation’s December 3 STEM Smart meeting, focused on early education, 300 researchers, teachers, education administrators, policymakers, funders, and business people came together to further our knowledge about early childhood STEM learning and teaching.   The waiting list had 150 more names on it. I even tried my hand at Twitter for the first time so I could participate in a TweetChat on improving STEM outreach in early childhood education, organized by PreschoolNation. How can I not be energized by this shared will and desire to do the hard work of figuring out how to harness our knowledge, enthusiasm, and unique perspectives to make progress?

It won’t be easy. It’s going to require a great deal of will, a great deal of working together, and a great deal of funding to meet the challenge of providing solid supports for STEM learning for every child.  Given the economics of early education, high quality programs in preschool are a good bet to yield a high return on investment, so that these young kids stay in the STEM pipeline and get the high paying STEM jobs.  And that’s important.  The military, the tech industry, medicine, engineering, and many other fields require a highly skilled workforce.  But before we get to that, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of preschool children who are not only eager to learn, but also eager to learn science, technology, engineering, and math.  I know I don’t want to lose even one of them because we adults–who had the opportunity and responsibility to improve science education–didn’t work together or try hard enough.  After the last few weeks, I know I am far from alone in my determination to take up the challenge.

- Kimberly Brenneman, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER


Highly Qualified Teachers: The Workforce Early Education Needs and Deserves

June 3, 2013

Well-trained, responsive, and effective teachers are essential to a high-quality early education program. While research has sometimes been murky on what the appropriate training and credentialing for early educators should be, a lack of good data has made it difficult in the past to explore the current situation. Recent research has helped shed some light on what the characteristics of early childhood educators.

The 2012 State Preschool Yearbook indicates that progress has been made in increasing the qualifications of teaching staff. In the 2011-2012 school year, 58 percent of state pre-K programs required lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, increasing from 45 percent in 2001-2002. Eighty-five percent of programs now require lead teachers to have specialized training in early childhood, up from 74 percent a decade ago. For the first time in the 2012 Yearbook, NIEER asked for the breakdown of pre-K teachers by degree, which helps paint a picture of credentialing on the ground. While 22 programs were not able to report these figures, having some of this information is a step in the right direction. According to Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), the percent of Head Start teachers with a BA or higher increased from 45 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2011, indicating significant progress on teacher credentials in recent years. While the CLASP report goes into more detail, preliminary figures for the 2012 year can be gathered from the FY14 Congressional Justification for the Department of Health and Human Services (Head Start section beginning on page 95).  These figures are summarized in Figure 1.

Teacher Degrees, State Pre-K and Head Start

For both state-funded pre-K (when reported) and Head Start, the majority of teachers have at least a Bachelor’s degree, with 79 percent of pre-K teachers holding a BA or higher compared to 62 percent in Head Start. Interestingly, a greater proportion of state-funded pre-K teachers have less than an Associate’s degree, with 15 percent holding a CDA.  While a CDA does require some specialized training in early childhood or a related field, it requires fewer credit hours than does an AA. If the goal is to ensure all lead teachers have a BA, state-funded pre-K may face a longer road in supporting these teachers through the additional coursework.

Any discussion of teacher credentials must also discuss compensation: without adequate compensation, early education programs will likely see high turnover and difficulty in recruiting the best teachers who could be paid higher in K-12 classrooms. It is also difficult to require teachers to meet higher degree requirements without increasing salary. According to 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary across settings for a Preschool teacher (not including special education) was just $27,450, compared to $50,380 for a Kindergarten teacher and $53,150 for Elementary School teachers generally. Information specific to both state-funded pre-K and Head Start programs bear out this trend of comparably low pay. Data from the 2009 Yearbook (the last year for which salary information was collected) indicates that for state-funded programs which could report data on salaries, 83 percent of pre-K teachers in public school settings and 88 percent in nonpublic school settings were paid below $50,000l, as seen in Table 1 below. For those reporting, the median salary category was $40-44,999 for those in public schools and $30-34,999 for those in nonpublic school settings.

Table 1: Lead Teacher Salary Ranges in Public and Nonpublic Settings, 2008-2009 School YearHead Start programs also pay low salaries, even lower than those of state pre-K teachers outside the public schools; even Head Start teachers with graduate degrees are paid at rates lower than Kindergarten teachers in public schools, as seen in Table 2.

Table 2: Head Start Teacher Salaries by Degree, National Average, 2011-2012

What does this all mean for the field? A new paper from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) found that the turnover rate from 2009 to 2010 among school-based early childhood care and education workers was 13.6, while center- and home-based workers had turnover rates of 24.4 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively. These data may include providers and teachers not included in state-funded pre-K or Head Start data, but coupled with reports from Georgia’s highly regarded state pre-K program that teachers left in droves when salaries were cut due to a shortened school year, it is clear that teacher turnover is an issue of continued concern in early education.  The CEPA paper goes on to examine trends in the field across sectors from 1990 to 2010 and found that despite significant attention and investment in the field during this time period, the “workforce remains a low‐education, low‐compensation, and high‐turnover workforce.” As researchers and policymakers alike consider complex issues like teacher effectiveness and evaluation, aligning across sectors, and best reaching traditionally undeserved students, it bears reminding them that a well-educated, well-respected, professional workforce is essential to getting the most bang for the public’s buck in early education.

—Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


Yes, Public Preschool is a Smart Investment

March 22, 2013

child with blockNote: This blog post is in response to the question posed by The New York Times in its Room for Debate forum: “Is Public Preschool a Smart Investment?”.

Early education and care programs have two goals — child care so parents can work or go to school and education so children learn and grow optimally.  Unfortunately, much of what is called child care in the United States is what others would call “child minding.”  Ensuring that children are safe, warm, and fed is not enough to support their healthy development, which also requires well-trained, adequately paid teachers who receive coaching and supervision plus sufficiently teacher-child ratios. This helps ensure caregivers provide children with educational content and play experiences that include language, math and science as well as attending to their social, emotional, and physical development, which are equally important. In a high-quality early childhood education and care setting, children learn language, how letters and books work, and about numbers, shapes, and dimensions. But they also learn how to test a theory, concentrate, self-regulate, develop attention skills, get along with others, and more.  The end result is they start kindergarten better prepared to learn and live full lives.

The evidence for pre-K is substantial and far beyond the few studies commonly mentioned, such as the Perry Preschool Program (which skeptics criticize for being old and small).  To date, there are summaries of 123 studies in the U.S. and about a third more elsewhere in the world that demonstrate the effectiveness of high-quality pre-K programs.  From all the studies out there one concludes that early educational intervention can have substantive short- and long-term effects on cognition and social-emotional development, as well as on school progress, antisocial behavior, earnings, welfare participation, and even crime.  A multiplicity of programs across various social and economic contexts, including large public programs, have been shown to be effective.  Among the recent evidence are long-term studies from Michigan and the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey.  So how can we choose not invest in it when the evidence also shows that for every $1 spent we get far greater returns?

The President’s pre-K proposal would help states provide high-quality pre-K for low- and middle-income families, which is crucial considering that children of lower income groups start kindergarten more than a year behind in language and math than their upper income peers.  And this gap is very resistant to later efforts to close it.  Recognizing that parents want quality learning experiences for even the youngest children, the President also proposed partnerships between child care and Early Head Start, a program for at-risk children under age 3 with a track record of success.  Improving quality in child care for younger children, particularly the most disadvantaged, while providing expanded pre-K to 4-year-olds is too important to be an either/or choice. We can do more for children of all ages and the President proposes to do that, but ensuring that every child has access to quality education at least by age 4 is an attainable goal right now while pursuing that broader agenda.  State leaders have figured out that pre-K is a good choice for families and children in their states and politically viable as a bipartisan policy –  last year, 39 states offered state-funded pre-K programs, and enrollment – all voluntary – has nearly doubled in a decade.  Even cities have started to push for pre-K programs, such as the recent efforts in San Antonio by Mayor Julián Castro.  Nevertheless, finances are difficult for many families, cities and states.  A little federal help will go a long way toward ensuring that all families, especially low- and middle-income ones, can have access to high-quality education for their preschoolers.

- Milagros Nores, Associate Director of Research, NIEER


The Perry Preschool Study and Head Start

March 8, 2013

This guest post is an open letter in response to The Wall Street Journal editorial “Head Start for All.”

Larry SchweinhartYour Review & Outlook “Head Start for All” (Feb. 25) makes several incorrect claims about the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. As director of the study, I’d like to set the record straight.

Your review claims that the Perry study and the Abecedarian study are the sole evidence that preschool works. But they are just the best known of a large number of studies finding that preschool works, that is, has its intended effects on children. Along with the city-wide Chicago Child-Parent Centers study, these studies go a big step further by finding strong long-term effects and return on investment.

In the presence of large returns on investment, the initial cost should be a secondary consideration. That said, the Perry Preschool cost per child was well below the $16,000 per child per year or more you said it cost. In current dollars, it cost $11,107 per child per year, about the same as the cost per K-12 student in the U.S. The Perry Preschool program is not that hard to replicate—and have its return on investment widely realized. We simply need to insist on reasonable program standards – qualified teachers using a proven curriculum, partnership with parents, and regular evaluation. Unfortunately, far too many existing preschool programs do not meet these standards.

The disappointing results of the national Head Start Impact Study are hardly a reason to abandon the program when other studies, like the Perry Preschool Study, show its enormous potential. The Head Start Impact Study does suggest a course correction, bringing the resources of Head Start more fully to bear on contributing to the development of young children living in poverty. Such improvements are achievable and, with them, widespread improvements in educational achievement, economic productivity, and reduced costs to taxpayers.

- Larry Schweinhart, President, HighScope Educational Research Foundation


Federal Proposal Would Build on State Efforts

February 26, 2013

Steve BarnettPresident Obama’s call to action on early education is a watershed moment that has the potential to improve education for millions of American students. Ensuring all students have the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool, regardless of income and geography, is a key component of an effective education system that prepares students for success in school and society.

State-funded pre-K has grown substantially over the last decade to serve 28 percent of 4-year-olds, up from 14 percent in 2001. Yet, this is only part of the picture. As many as 40 percent are served by public programs when Head Start and preschool special education are counted, though the latter may consist of only a few hours of therapy a week. Over 80 percent are in some type of out of home arrangement including private programs and family home child care. Unfortunately, research now makes it clear that the quality of many of these arrangements as assessed by direct observation is far too low to promote educational opportunity. Some are so poor they may actually increase children’s risk of school failure. Head Start’s weaknesses have been noted by many as debate over this proposal has unfolded, but Head Start is far better than many of the private centers and day care homes children attend. NIEER has just released an in-depth look at what the research tells us about the outcomes of early education which can help clarify some confusion seen in media report.

That is why it is so important to understand that the President’s pre-K proposal will raise quality and educational effectiveness, not just increase the number of seats available.  And, it will do this by lifting up the entire field.  The models of successful pre-K for all already operate show the way. Oklahoma, New Jersey’s Abbott program, and West Virginia all integrate private providers and Head Start into state-funded pre-K.  What does this mean?  Head Start teachers nationally are paid barely more than pet sitters and dog walkers. This is Head Start’s Achilles heel. Teachers in private child care make even less.  To use the New Jersey example, when integrated into state pre-K these teachers were given the opportunity to go back to school and get stronger preparation, they were assigned teacher coaches who worked with them as partners to improve their teaching, and their salaries were doubled. Of course, this came with accountability for results, but the vast majority delivered. Teaching quality in all classrooms, private and public, was raised from poor/mediocre to good/excellent.

Planning for this reform process has already begun in most states through their state early learning advisory councils.  In addition, 35 states and the District of Columbia developed reform plans when they applied for funds to expand early education through the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge in 2011. However, only nine states were awarded funds. These applications demonstrate a clear interest and capacity by state governments to partner with the federal government to start all children on the right path. States have never been better poised to prioritize early education and the federal government’s role is welcome support.

The White House preschool proposal has a few key words that are important in understanding how this would play out: “federal-state partnership” and “cost-sharing.” This isn’t the federal government signing a blank check to foot the entire bill for early education; it is limited support based on the number of low-income children in a state and tied to a small number of standards already adopted by many states. If other states do not want to raise quality, they do not have to participate. If they do participate, they will be in charge, not the federal government, which could list its requirements on a single page.  The list of states that we believe might qualify with little or no change to state policy includes not just Oklahoma and Georgia, but also Alabama, Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West VirginiaMississippi is currently advancing legislation that would meet the test as well.

Once it is understood, the President’s pre-K plan should be endorsed by practically everyone. It supports equity and excellence in the pre-K policies advanced by governors of both parties. Both critics and supporters of Head Start should welcome it as Head Start reform that will strengthen that program and improve its effectiveness. Those who want to see more choice and competition should applaud federal support for state programs that incorporate private providers. To return to our New Jersey example, two-thirds of the children are served by private providers supported by local school districts responsible for ensuring quality through teacher coaching and supports to help children with special needs succeed in regular classes.

Given all of its advantages, the primary objection in Congress to the President’s proposal is likely to be that we can’t afford new spending when deficits loom so large. Yet, this is fundamentally a pro-growth, deficit reduction proposal. The biggest returns to this investment will kick in years down the road when the deficit is projected to become a more serious problem. And, it addresses root causes of the deficit–slow growth and rising costs of government including health care costs. Quality pre-K will enhance productivity to increase growth, decrease the costs of school failure and crime, and reduce smoking and other risky behaviors that harm health. Sure, it’s just one small contribution to deficit reduction, but a $50 billion investment over 10 years could contribute a few hundred million dollars to deficit reduction.

Rejecting the President’s pre-K plan is the far more costly alternative. We cannot afford to leave so many children behind with more than a third not ready to succeed at kindergarten entry. We cannot afford the lost growth and increased costs to government when they subsequently fail. We cannot afford failing to recognize that this is not just a problem for the 45 percent of our children who live below 200 percent of poverty, but for the vast majority of families. Deficit hawks, education reformers, and civil rights activists should unite to lead the charge for this proposal in Congress.  States–red and blue–have already shown the way forward. Congress should follow.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Holy Preschool, Batman” by Fawn Johnson.


Reactions to the President’s Pre-K Speech and Proposal

February 15, 2013
Child listening to book

© NIEER

The early childhood education (ECE) field is a-twitter with responses following President Obama’s announcement of federal investments in preschool for all during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Many have questions about how administration’s plan will approach preschool education. Will programs truly be of high quality? Will programs strike a balance between academics and play? What about programs for children younger than age 4? NIEER offered recommendations on the key components of a federal plan last week, but the White House plan is still surrounded by many more questions.

Answers to some of those questions may not be found for a while, but more details on the administration’s early education proposal were revealed this week. Early Thursday morning, the White House released a look at the preschool plan with this fact sheet. Later that day, President Obama made pre-K the focal point of a speech given in Decatur, Georgia.  One thing that was apparent from the speech is that he has an impressive knowledge of the research and what high-quality really means for early care and education; video of that speech as well as a transcript are now available from the White House. Speaking on the return on investment of preschool education, President Obama said, “If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here.” While in Decatur, the President also spent some time learning with students in a pre-K classroom.

Following the speech, Dr. Barnett released a statement, in which he noted that “early education can have substantive short- and long-term effects on cognitive and social-emotional development, as well as on school achievement, while reducing inequality, antisocial behavior, and even crime. So how can we choose not invest in it?”  As the President did in his speech, it is important to attend to all of the research and not just studies that might support one view or another.  This has not always been the case in responding to the proposed plan, particularly with some of the most negative responses.

For example, the Head Start Impact Study has been cited as evidence that pre-K doesn’t work.  Yet, that study does not show that Head Start has no positive impacts, much less that high-quality preschool generally isn’t effective.  The naysayers fail to acknowledge that Head Start teachers are paid about half what public school teachers earn, which is a serious impediment to hiring and retaining the best teachers.  Nor do they mention the more positive research findings on Head Start from other studies or acknowledge that some Head Start centers are more effective than others.

Of course, the right way to address the question of what this proposal might accomplish is to ask what the research as a whole finds (and not just research here in the U.S.).  This much is clear:  on average there are substantial long-term effects; effects are larger if programs are well-designed to produce high-quality teaching; children from middle-income families benefit also if the programs are of high quality.   

There are still plenty more details that will need to be revealed over the coming weeks as this proposal moves forward. For now, we at NIEER are pleased to see the conversation and debate on educating our youngest learners elevated to the national level.

- W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER

- Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


Early Education in the State of the Union Spotlight

February 12, 2013

Rumors have been swirling that President Obama would address early childhood education in State of the Union speech, but there was still a thrill for early education advocates in hearing the President’s words rings out from the podium tonight. The full details of his early education plan will be revealed in coming days but inclusion in the State of the Union makes clear the White House has elevated early learning to a national priority. The emphasis on return on investment was particularly gratifying as NIEER’s Steven Barnett, working with Larry Schweinhart and others on David Weikart’s Perry Preschool study, noted the high returns to preschool with the $7 returned to $1 invested figure first reported 20 years ago.

In human terms, it is difficult to overstate the benefits of high-quality early education programs. Children who are enrolled in these programs are better prepared for school, which is particularly important at a time when 40 percent of kindergarteners are not ready to be in the classroom. Schools benefit from students coming into class academically and socially prepared to learn, resulting in reduction in grade retention and special education services. Families are better able to work when they know their children are in a safe and educational environment while benefiting from socializing with children their own age. Millions more Americans who may not even have preschool-age children benefit from long-term societal benefits — pre-K has been found to reduce participants’ future reliance on welfare and likeliness of being imprisoned, not to mention the fact that any of the 3-year-olds playing doctor in the dress-up corner today could be your surgeon twenty years from now. Opponents may argue that the proposal shared tonight could come with a considerable price tag. But $100 million invested in early education over the next decade could return as much as $1 trillion in benefits to the nation. And that is present value – or the equivalent value today – not a simple sum of benefits over time, which is much larger. That is an investment well worth making.

Preschoolers laughing

© NIEER

For too long, high-quality early education has been out of reach for most low- and middle-income Americans. As we noted last week, “Among children from low-income families, more than 1 in 3 attends no preschool program at age 4 and most do not attend at age 3. For those lucky enough to attend a state-funded program, real spending per child declined during the Great Recession, sapping quality. Children in higher income families have better access to programs, but those are not necessarily of high quality.” The President’s plan to seeks to ensure that all 4-year-olds can access quality programs, which will put children on an early path to success. Early childhood education can help all children at risk of school failure and close much of the achievement gap that plagues American education. This proposal improves opportunity for everyone, offering a hand up to lower and middle-income families that will help them reach the American dream.

Like all education programs, this new early education plan will work only with a strong commitment to quality. This means ensuring that all classrooms have highly qualified teachers, both through initial preparation and ongoing professional development. And, preschool educators must be paid on the same scale as K-12 teachers. Until all early educators are valued as highly as their higher grade counterparts, quality will be difficult to ensure.  Some states have achieved more on this front than others, and it is hoped this new plan will flexibly help all states bring their current systems up to high quality, including teacher qualifications, while expanding access. States like Alabama, with high quality but little access, have very different assistance needs than states like Florida, with lots of children enrolled but low quality standards.

Moving this proposal from Capitol Hill into classrooms will require that Congress move beyond partisan politics in the interest of America’s children.  This proposal is in line with the traditional role of the federal government in education: ensuring that the most disadvantaged students and states are given an equal opportunity.   If there is any doubt that states are interested in pursuing these collaborative partnerships with the federal government, consider that thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied for Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge funds in 2011. In the end, pre-K is not a “red” or “blue” issue, a fact highlighted by the Obama administration’s plan to visit an early learning center in Georgia, a red state with a historically strong, large-scale program that has been embraced by politicians and parents alike. Oklahoma is a another leader in state-funded early childhood education, and early educator Susan Bumgardner, a 2013 nominee for Oklahoma City Public Schools Teacher of the Year award, was a special guest of the first family this evening. Early education efforts in the United States present a bipartisan state commitment to doing what is best for the nation’s children.  Federal leaders should follow in the footsteps of the folks back home.

We applaud President Obama for introducing a vision tonight of what early education can do for millions of the nation’s children and families. In the coming days and weeks, we will be eagerly following the details of this proposal, hoping to see a pre-K plan move through Congress that supports high-quality early education for families and states most in need of expanded opportunities. America’s children deserve nothing less.

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

- W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER

- Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER


Not Just Wishful Thinking

January 10, 2013

Steve BarnettEnsuring that all our children are ready to succeed when they enter kindergarten is a tremendous task, made much more difficult in the United States by high levels of poverty and low levels of parental education. One in four preschoolers lives in poverty, nearly half in low-income families. Twenty-seven percent are born to mothers without a high school diploma or GED. Assessments at kindergarten entry show that surprisingly many children from middle-income families are poorly prepared to succeed. There are many public policies that could contribute to reducing this problem, and there is no single solution, but let us consider one that seems obvious and for which there is considerable evidence, public preschool programs.

Public preschool education could be an important part of the solution, but currently it is not given a chance. Ensuring school readiness through preschool education is precluded by low levels of investment and high levels of wishful thinking. Far too many children lack access to preschool education, and it is least available to those who could benefit most. The majority of 3-year-olds in homes where Spanish is the primary language don’t attend any preschool program. Some don’t qualify for publicly funded programs because their parents work long hours to keep them out of poverty. Others live in states that don’t fund any preschool program at all or in neighborhoods that aren’t served. As a nation we spend far more public money on prisons than on preschools. Federal and state governments together spend less on preschool education than Americans spend on pet food.

The latest research on preschool program outcomes to cross my desk is the third grade follow-up of the national randomized trial of Head Start. It is now clear: Head Start produces no perceptible lasting gains in any domain of child development. This does not rule out very small persistent gains, but Head Start is not meeting its goals. Yet, much of the field seems to be in denial, responding that bad public schools erode the effects of Head Start. Somehow they fail to see that even initial gains are quite small and that children in the study made much larger gains in kindergarten and the early grades than they did in Head Start. Other studies confirm that learning gains in kindergarten are much larger than in Head Start. The root of the problem is that Head Start is locked into a program model that fails to focus on intensive education and pays teaching staff abysmally. This model has failed every true experimental test (Early Head Start, the Comprehensive Child Development Program, the Child and Family Resource Centers).

State pre-K programs often are little better than Head Start since they too usually lack the funding and standards of public education for kindergarten. State subsidized child care (as opposed to preschool education) is so poor that it may actually harm child development on average. Clearly, just shifting Head Start to the states is not enough to solve the problem. However, for all the faults of public education, one only has to look at growth curves for learning over time to conclude that if preschool were supported like kindergarten, children would be much better prepared. And, looking at the programs found to produce substantive lasting gains for children in well-controlled studies, the common theme is that they are much more educationally intensive than our current preschool programs. It is time to face facts and change directions.

If the United States is to effectively address the school readiness problem, public preschool programs must provide much more intensive education to many more children. Only public preschool education for all children is likely to achieve this goal. Means-tested programs exclude too many children who need help. The federal government should incentivize states to offer preschool programs that meet a small number of well-defined criteria for quality and set a goal to serve all children by a certain date. Then let states innovate as they have a track record of creating flexible public-private preschool partnerships. The focus of accountability should be on strong teaching and truly substantive gains in broad child development. Head Start should be integrated into public education as a funding stream to enhance the education of young children in poverty so that they start early and receive the best teachers and smallest classes. Once we stop thinking of preschool as charity and start thinking of it as an investment in everyone’s future we might actually do what is necessary to meaningfully improve the education of young children.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Pre-K for Everyone?” by Fawn Johnson.


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